From the Bay to the Blue Ridge, To the Blue Ridge

Striking it Rich with “Rich Strike”

By Julie Reardon

You don’t have to live in horse country to appreciate a good horse story. The unlikely story of last month’s Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike touches all the feels: under achieving horse, small time owner, unknown trainer and jockey, second-biggest longshot in Derby history. Even a little equine misbehavior after the race televised for the world to see as the colt bit the lead pony and outrider on the way to the winner’s circle.

In order to sound like a horse country local, it’s important to be able to distinguish between the instant internet racehorse experts and the real story. Amazing how watching one Derby on TV leads otherwise normal people to parade as experts advising Rich Strike’s trainer, jockey and the track outriders on how to do their jobs. One such expert said the horse was a dud and would be forgotten in a month. I disagree. He and his connections need never win another race and they still have the distinction of winning the Kentucky Derby, arguably the most famous horse race in the world, and winning over a million dollars, something very few horses do. And Rich Strike’s story is epic.

Although Rich Strike was bred and initially owned by Calumet Farm in Kentucky, one of the country’s premiere owner/breeder racing stables with 10 Kentucky Derby winners produced, no one thought the chestnut colt by Keen Ice out of a Strike Gold mare, would be one of them. Possessing a decent but not exceptional pedigree, he was last in his first start so Calumet decided to cut their losses and entered him in a $30,000 claiming race to facilitate a fast and cheap claim. Oklahoma Thoroughbred owner, Rick Dawson, down on his luck with racehorses contemplating getting out of the business, bought him. He’d told friend and trainer Eric Reed he’ll try one more time and directs Reed to claim a horse they’d both liked at Churchill Downs. They lose out on buying that one; Rich Strike was his second choice. Rich Strike won that modest claimer by over 17 lengths.

A word on claiming and race conditions: All horses start out winless–usually racehorses are worth the most before they ever set foot on the track. Of the approximately 20,000 Thoroughbreds born every year, about 60 percent of them actually make it to the races. Of those, over half will never win a race and of those that do win, under one percent win big stakes races like the Triple Crown series. The majority of Thoroughbreds run in claiming races, the bottom rung, or “bread and butter” of the racing industry. At the top rung are the graded stakes races, ranked as Grade 1 (the best) 2 and 3. Conditions are restrictions on eligibility; these are written by the tracks’ racing secretaries. They include age, sex, win record or more. Most races are claiming and non-winner (maiden) races; only a handful being the highest-rated G1 or Group 1 status.

The Kentucky Derby, for example, is a G1 championship race restricted to three-year-olds that have earned enough points in qualifying races for entry. Fillies and mares can run in any race they are otherwise qualified for, but historically are not as strong or fast as the males so they have their own races that males cannot enter. Claiming price (the higher the listed claiming price, the better the winning potential) but unlike non-claiming races, any licensed owner or trainer can put in a claim on an entered horse before the start of the race for the listed price and buy it. While not perfect, this system ensures a level playing field as no one with a really good horse can earn a purse or an easy win against lesser competition because they’d risk losing it for the claiming tag. Only three Derby winners ever ran in claiming races and Rich Strike is the only one that was actually claimed in one.

From that claiming win to allowance and graded stakes including Derby qualifiers, Rich Strike ran well but wasn’t able to finish better than 3rd in any of his races. While his owner and trainer remained steadfast in thinking they had a good horse, he had yet to prove greatness and failed to earn enough points to qualify for the Derby; restricted to the top-20 point earners. He did, however, garner enough to be 24th on that list, enough to be “also eligible” to enter if there were scratches. And there were several, but 30 minutes before final closing, he was still number 21 so chances looked slim to none. Then, it happened—Etherial Road scratched 15 minutes before closing the day before the Derby and Rich Strike was in.

Now let’s examine his trainer Eric Reed and jockey Sonny Leon. Neither had ever had a horse in, much less won, a graded stakes race. Leon, a Venezuela native, began his career here in the U.S. In 2015 and actually has a decent win record but he’s raced primarily in Ohio and is a relative unknown outside of that state. As a last minute entry with an unknown jockey, it’s no wonder bettors overlooked the duo and made Rich Strike the 80-1 longshot. However, anyone who watched that Derby race saw a masterful ride as Leon guided the horse from the back of the pack, through traffic in and around other horses and outrunning the favorite in the last furlong. Only in the Derby will horses and riders ever face 20-horse fields, most are half that size so it takes not just equine but rider talent to handle not just staying out of trouble but being in a position to win.

And not just rider talent—a trainer must handle the delicate balance of fitness and peak performance; you don’t want your colt to reach his peak before or after the big race as can happen with young horses and you want a Derby youngster to be able to handle the crowds and noise at a major sporting event the likes of which they’ve never seen. Plenty of the armchair experts chastised the trainer and the colt for his rogue biting behavior as the lead pony and outrider led him to the winner’s circle, even some horse people. However, a passing knowledge of riding horses doesn’t translate into the care and management of racehorses. One tub thumping Facebook expert bragged that if she owned him he’d be gelded in an hour. Of course, anyone who’s spent time with racing colts knows they nip, they can bite and kick, and not necessarily from meanness. They’re fit, they’re just reaching sexual maturity, they’re stabled next to fillies and mares that are in season in the spring, and they are rarely castrated until they’ve proven they are not good enough to win or breed. And certainly not if they’ve won the Derby and over a million dollars.

So there you have it, the Cinderella horse story of the year. We will be rooting for Rich Strike to win the Belmont after bypassing the Preakness. Win, Place or Show or even also-ran, his is a feel good story!

The Belmont Stakes runs on June 11th. Check your local listing for channel and times.

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